The Weight of God

The Weight of God

The Weight of God

 

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

-Habakkuk 2:14

 

“The biggest problem of the church is a faith-problem”[1]. That is the diagnosis of Professor Detlef Pollack, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at the University- and I think that in that he is indisputably right. But I don’t think that the medicine he prescribes is right. The diagnosis was made in a speech to the Synod of the Evangeliches Landeskirche Deutschland, (EKD- for English readers, the federation of “official” regional Protestants churches in Germany). Five hundred years after the Reformation, Professor Pollack says that people no longer believe what Luther believed. Luther wanted to know how he, as a “depraved and sinful” man, could find a gracious God. But according to Professor Pollack “We can today no longer believe in the principal of the sinfulness of humanity”, (he has presumably not heard about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al). Today, instead of thinking of themselves as depraved, people rather think of themselves as “capable of improvement” (verbesserungsfähig). Indeed, he continues, most people now do not think of God as an authority who judges our sins, or as a person at all, “as the Bible proclaims”, but as a distant but somehow benevolent power, an “impersonal higher force”.

 

Professor Pollack’s prescription is, essentially, that churches should go with the flow, and accept these beliefs. Amongst other things, he says that no church service should ever be longer than 50 minutes, as people have other things to do on a Sunday morning that are more important to them.

 

This prescription is, I suggest, like that of a medieval quack doctor who treats every diseases by bleeding the patient: it will gradually drain the life out of them. I will highlight just two problems with it. First, it leaves people with no reason to go to church. If God is not personal, if what people already believe about him is true, and if church isn’t that important, then why bother getting out of bed on a Sunday morning? If the church has been wrong for 2,000 years, then it would be much better, and much more honest, to admit it and give up; there certainly seems to be little point in investing an effort and energy in getting people to come to church.

 

Second, what Professor Pollack recommends has been tried and found wanting. They are nothing new: they are the same stale, discredited tactics that Liberal Protestant and Liberal Roman Catholic churches have tried for over 100 years, and which have been a complete and utter failure. Churches which adapted their beliefs to what the secular world believes, in a misguided attempt to be “relevant”, have seen their numbers of worshippers decline rapidly, their structures collapse, and their congregations close. To take one example, the very liberal Episcopal Church (USA), which enthusiastically supports same-sex marriage, has seen its number of worshippers plummet. At the same time, churches which are growing are generally those with a conservative theology, which is very different to the beliefs of the world around them. This is true in Africa and China, but also now in the West. It seems that telling people that they are sinners, but that there is a God of grace who loves them and sent his Son to die for them, is the way to grow churches.

 

To take one example, in recent years there has been a “Reformed Resurgence” among Evangelicals in North America and Great Britain. In these churches the doctrines preached are those most outrageously offensive and, it would seem, least relevant to the 21st century: the absolute sovereignty and perfect holiness of God, our depravity and sinfulness, and Jesus’ substitutionary death as a sacrifice for our sins. Yet these churches, (generally speaking, and there are exceptions), grow. They are not simply parroting what the world says; they are offering something different, a fresh, clean, and compelling vision of humanity and our relation to God. The services are not limited to 50 minutes: in many, the sermon alone is forty minutes, and governed by what the Bible says, not what the preacher thinks is relevant. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Evangelical churches: anecdotal evidence suggests that young people are increasingly being attracted to Eastern Orthodox churches, where the worship is long, traditional, and liturgical.

 

What do these churches have in common? I think it is that they have a heavy God. The word “glory” in Hebrew also means “weight” or “heaviness”. God is glorious: he is radiantly beautiful and splendid and pure; and this glory is his weight and heaviness that lies on worship. Put simply, God is far greater and far more important than we are. His views matter more than ours, and what he wants is infinitely more important than what we want.

51Xl+21jMiLTwenty three years ago, the evangelical theologian David Wells spoke of the “weightlessness of God”[1]. According to Wells, God had become for many churches weightless and unimportant. This included many evangelical, doctrinally orthodox churches, who in theory believed that God is glorious, but who let that glory sit lightly upon their services. These “seeker-sensitive” churches instead treated the gospel as a product to be marketed, and acted on the assumption that the customer was always right. So, in a drive to relevant, service became brief, “lite”, entertaining and inoffensive. The intention was good, and for a while they were a success; but God was absent, and now these churches are failing. Well’s response was to call on churches to have “courage to be 9781844742783-usProtestant”[2], and proclaim and live by what he called the “holy-love” of God[3].

 

30173388._UY200_Very simply, this means letting the full weight of the glorious God who is holy-love rest upon the church again. This might mean that services become longer and more serious, and maybe less “relevant” to the world, (although more relevant to God). But it would also mean that they were more joyful, and more full of the glorious presence of God. Nor is this an optional extra. The Eastern Orthodox writer Rod Dreher has argued that we are facing in the west the collapse of a civilization, and a culture that is becoming very hostile[5]. If churches are to survive this, they will need to be more 41QY+zZAzfLthan friendly and entertaining. They will need roots deep down in God’s word, and faces turned upwards towards the light of God’s glory in the face of Christ.

 

To put it another way, we need to believe that we are saved soli deo gloria– for and by the glory of God alone. In our services at Christ Church Düsseldorf in the last few weeks, we have been thinking about the solas that some up the truths of the Reformation: our supreme authority, the only place where God’s voice is heard, is Scripture alone, and so we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Soli deo gloria lies underneath all the others, and ties them together:  God’s great end in all he does is to glorify himself alone, not us, and therefore to give us the most precious gift he could possibly give us, a sight of his glory in Christ. The problem of the church is truly a faith problem. But the only solution is to see by faith the glory of Christ.

 

Postscript

 

The theme of next Sunday’s service at Christ Church is “to the glory of God alone”. We will learn this new hymn from Sovereign Grace Music, which you might want to practise. I think you recognise the tune.

 

One man who I think felt the weight of God’s glory was Johann Sebastian Bach. On the manuscripts of his music, he always signed his name, and then wrote the letters SDG- soli deo gloria. So here is something to prepare you for Sunday- “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of armies. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest”.

 

 

 

[1] Idea-Spektrum Magazin, 15 November 2017, page 9.

[2] David Wells God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pages 88-118.

[3] David Wells The Courage to be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[4] David Wells God in the Whirlwind (Nottingham: IVP, 2014), p16. Wells intended both terms to be taken together as a compound noun, not an adjective and a noun.

[5] Rod Dreher The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017)